[Cross-posted to Online Opinion]
I spend my working life running an online media firm – WorkDay Media, publisher of Banking Day – with its owner and editor-in-chief, Ian Rogers. Last month, Ian and I wrote a submission to the federal government’s Independent Media Inquiry. You can see the whole thing at the WorkDay Media site.
We’re trying to focus the inquiry a little more on what we might gain from the Internet’s transformation of communication, and a little less on what we might lose as newspapers inevitably dwindle.
It’s fairly obvious that Australians are relying less and less on information from “the mainstream media” – that is, existing newspapers, TV and radio stations. Instead they are getting and exchanging information from a far richer variety of Internet-based sources, from email newsletters to expert blogs to government and company records – plus, of course, Club Troppo.
This seems like good news. So why are we holding a media inquiry focused on mainstream media, and particularly on the newspaper industry?
The obvious answer is that the future for Australian newspapers looks pretty ugly. Once newspapers were the gatekeepers; now they are not. They are losing advertisers and readers to a fundamentally more attractive and efficient Internet. The media analyst Roger Colman calculates that “all metropolitan newspapers in print editions will be unprofitable, definitely, by 2020”.
Many of those who fear for the future of “the mainstream media” in Australia – like academic David McKnight, or publisher Eric Beecher – are concerned about how we will reproduce the activities of big newspaper newsrooms as newspapers gradually go out of business. They believe this is a very important question.
But this focus on the media past signals a failure of imagination. Big newspaper newsrooms will not be recreated in online form. Facts, news, analysis are all going to have to come out in different ways than they have in the past.
And they will. They already are. You have to be enormously enthusiastic about the old media environment not to believe this: the new media environment, for all its faults, is far better than what it is replacing.
Media thinkers worry that online sources would never have uncovered a Watergate scandal. They’re probably wrong, in every way. Now more than ever, the truth will out. Richard Nixon’s corruption was mostly uncovered by official investigators; Woodward and Bernstein, great journalists that they were, were merely conduits. In the age of the Internet, Watergate might have evolved over weeks, not years. Just in the past year we have seen yet another new information innovation – Wikileaks – whose model suggests secrets will be harder than ever to keep in the decades ahead.
There will probably be times in the future when Australia will look back at some event, some scandal, some development in the society, and say that newspapers might have done a better job than the new information sources. But we suspect those cases will be few and far between.
New online players would already be even more numerous in traditional media areas such as politics, public policy and business if not for the presence of mainstream media, particularly newspapers, whose large online presences are hugely subsidised by their traditional businesses. This is certainly the biggest bar to the expansion of many online information ventures, including WorkDay Media.
Australia has entered an age when media can be created, transformed and transmitted far more easily than ever before. Australians who believe in the importance of an informed society should treat the 2010s as an era of huge optimism and opportunity. For there is every reason to believe that the Australian society of the next 20 years will be better informed than ever before.
Facing such a future, it makes little sense to try to impose a more restrictive regime on the dwindling existing “mainstream media”, or to subsidise its continued existence. We can improve the Press Council. We can have governments make more information available to citizens. But there is no need to choose this moment to impose either a new regulatory regime or a new protection scheme.
This is a moment to embrace the information future, not to embalm the media past.